MELBOURNE, Fla. - Hundreds of thousands of Central Florida students returned to school Monday a week after Seminole and Sumter counties started last week.
In Orange County, thousands of students returned to school to see some pretty big upgrades. Construction workers spent the past year making renovations on 11 schools in the county, including Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, where run down classrooms have been replaced with state of the art technology.
"I'm looking forward to seeing children walking in with smiles and eager to learn," said Joyce Mincey, a first grade teacher at the school.
Mincey has been a teacher for 25 years but said this first day of school has a special excitement to it.
"When you're exposed to newness, a total different environment, you feel more a part, you're excited, and it's going to make a big difference," said Mincey.
Every classroom is now outfitted with laptops and a smart board. In the last three years, the school has improved its grade from an F to a B.
"We have a lot of great teachers here with the technology, so we have no place to go but up," said Principal Sean Brown.
Brown said the school held an open house for the community to see the upgrades, and he believes everyone is very excited.
"I think we're going to get more parent volunteers and more people coming to the school to actually help support the school and also the community," said Brown.
School leaders say one of the reasons it was able to do all of this work was because of a half-penny sales tax for school funding. The tax is up for renewal ater this month.
Anyone heading to school in Brevard County this year is going to run into some noticeable security changes, part of a push to ensure that dangerous predators don't get anywhere near children.
The security software is called KeepnTrack and it's been installed in all 82 of Brevard County's public schools.
"The state requires that we run all of our volunteers through a sex predator background check. We were doing that once every five years," said Michelle Irwin of Brevard Public Schools. "Now, every time a visitor signs in, and it was never done with a visitor before, a sex predator check is being done based on their state issued ID."
Irwin said anyone wanting to visit a school will have to check-in with their state ID before being allowed inside. That ID is then run through a national sex offender database.
"Our district gets an automatic alert, the front desk gets an alert, the principal, the assistant principal, the nearest SRO's to the school building," said Irwin. "They all get an alert stating that a potential sex predator has tried to check-in."
Meanwhile, there's a new effort in Brevard County to make sure parents are more involved in their child's schooling, and the district is hoping "having an app for that" will help.
Attendance alerts, upcoming events, lunch menus and notifications the school board needs to send to parents is now available in app-form.
"Parents can follow their kids so they don't have to get everything that's available," said Irwin. "They can personalize to them. So if they have a child, say, at Viera High School and one over at Manatee Elementary, they can follow those two schools."
Irwin said before the app launched, the district was only able to provide voicemail alerts. Now, if parents need to know something urgent the information will pop up on their smartphone immediately.
"Let's say we're having a really bad weather day with lots of lightning and we have to postpone our dismissal," said Irwin. "We can send out a quick message to them to let them know that it's been postponed and we'll send another notification when they're ready to be picked up."
Irwin encourages parents to download the free app by searching BPS Schools in their app store.
In Volusia County, the 2nd annual Million Father March at Turie T. Smith Elementary School took place.
Bethune-Cookman University students, city leaders and parents lined the driveway and welcomed students on their first day of school.
"I'm really happy to be here today," said Zykerria Franklin.
The Million Father March is a national event that promotes a father's active involvement in the education of their children.
"It's a wonderful thing that the school has done. Just to bring the kids in and they're very excited about the Bethune Cookman students coming over to greet them," said Amanda Morgan.
About a dozen fraternity members waited at the end of the march to shake hands and pass out goodies to kids. They also wished them a great school year.
"A lot of these young kids may not have fathers in the home. Just to see students that are currently in college, just to see professionals that perhaps they don't see all the time here to support them, and to let them know that we're here for them for the whole entire year. I think that really helps them," said Ryan Griffin, an academic advisor and member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Bethune Cookman University partnered with the elementary school last year to initiate the event. Griffin said their involvement doesn't stop here.
"Our students will still come back to the school and mentor, tutor and do various things with them even outside of just today," said Griffin.
Zykerria believes the Million Father March is a good thing. It's not only a great way to start the first day of school, it helps motivate her to get a great education.
"I'm thinking about graduation day, I'm thinking about my college scholarship. I'm thinking about a lot of things," said Zykerria Franklin.
Turie T. Smith Elementary is the only school in Volusia County that participates in the Million Father March.
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